Coiba National Park, a group of 38 islands, is a natural treasure of Panama. This chain of islands is considered one of the best and most unique diving spots in the world. It is home to the largest Pacific coral reef in the Americas. With an area of over 430,000 acres, the island is also a prime destination for nature enthusiasts. Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have proclaimed it an unparalleled destination for discovering new species. Rachel Collin, a Smithsonian project coordinator said: "It's hard to imagine, while snorkeling around a tropical island that's so close to the United States, that half the animals you see are unknown to science."
The islands have been so well preserved partially due to its history as a penal colony. Established in 1919 the prison on Coiba was avoided by locals and was completely undeveloped. After the prison was closed down in 2004, its pristine condition made it ideal as a park reserve. The island is about 75% forested with a large fraction standing as ancient forest. Coiba Island is home to rare plant species found only on the island. Coiba's underwater topography is linked by the underwater Cordillera mountain chain to Coco's and the Galapagos Islands. It is also a refuge for a number of rare terrestrial animals such as the crested eagle and several sub-species of agouti, possum and howler monkeys. The waters adjacent to the islands are teeming with marine life. The Indo-Pacific current through the Gulf of Chiriqui provides a unique dive environment. The warm current brings with it coral and many of the pacific tropical underwater life that you would not expect on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Also with it come the larger animals such as humpback whales, sharks, whale sharks, turtles and more.
Coiba National Park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004 and is now labeled by many as the 'Galapagos' of Panama. The rare scarlet macaws nest here and humpback whales are seen between July and October. Santa Catalina is the closest access point with about an hour and fifteen minute boat ride from Santa Catalina's beach to Isla Coiba.
Diving in Coiba
The National Park of Coiba is an extreme diving experience. Diving here is fairly deep, and contains some of the most beautiful aquatic life imaginable. According to the Lonely Planet, diving around Coiba is the best Pacific diving from Mexico to Colombia. Because it's the same underwater island chain, Coiba is often described as a mixture between the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) and the Cocos Islands (Costa Rica). The water temperature at the surface is in the low 80's, and thermo clines are common at depth dropping the temperature to the mid 70's. Currents are variable depending on the 8ft to 12ft tidal exchange. The visibility around the islands on average is around 70 feet.
There are many dive sites in the area where you will always see large aquatic life. One of the three dive shops in the launching town of Santa Catalina actually backs this up with a guarantee for each trip. Moray eels, whale sharks, turtles, barracudas, snappers, grunts and jacks are some of the species seen at incredible size.
Above water, intervals between dives are spent relaxing on white sandy beaches such as Granito de Oro, or simply taking in the beautiful scenery on the many islands around Coiba. From the boat, chances are good for spotting whales and dolphins.
From the distinct reef formations to the large aquatic species, most divers consider Coiba the best underwater experience in Panama. Lago Bay is an hour boat ride from the island chain and makes for an unforgettable day trip.